I was invited to take part in the closing panel of the UBC Arts Undergraduate Society’s student conference on “Innovation.” The members of the panel were asked to discuss ways in which academic faculty could foster innovation in student research, but I seem to have missed the memo, and so I prepared a set of remarks offering a critique of the concept of innovation. I realized my mistake about five minutes before I was scheduled to speak, so I ended up improvising some comments—using bits and pieces from what I had written—on the poetics of “study” (gesturing a little at Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s work on the undercommons) and on research as question and risk rather than innovative production: that it might be better to think of ourselves as students rather than experts. I also felt that I had pitched my remarks all wrong, and that it would be better to talk with this audience than read out my prose. Still, I like what I wrote; I used this moment to start thinking about Tanya Tagaq’s music, a critical project I have been meaning to set in motion for some time. Here is the composed undelivered text I’d prepared.
Innovation Without Innovation
Kevin McNeilly, University of British Columbia
Unmade Remarks at the AUS Humanities Conference
Saturday, 16 January 2016
I want to make a few remarks to frame and to critique the ideological loading of the concept of innovation. I’m resisting the un-interrogated praise of making things new—the allure of novelty—and at the same time trying to suggest a relationship to time, a going forward (or perhaps better, outward) that can be sounded as a crucial potential in particular forms of lyric, in poetic language that W. H. Auden famously imagines as “a way of happening, a mouth.”
Approaching the end of writing The Order of Things(1966/1970), Michel Foucault admits that he discovers himself “on the threshold of a modernity that we have”—that he has—”not yet left behind” (xxiv). This unqualified “we” is epochal, its episteme described asymptotically by the reflexive acknowledgement not only of the limits of his own language, but also of a cultural latecomer’s language as such: “the question of the being of language,” as he puts it, is “intimately linked with the fundamental problems of our culture” (382). (I’m poaching and re-appropriating material, if not the argument, from John Rajchman’s 1983 essay “Foucault, or the Ends of Modernism” .)The shared cult of Bildung—linked to myths of progress, of newness, of innovation, of transcendence, of what the philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers refers to as the “epic” of our time—presently and lately, as it touches the expressive limits of its own futurity, its forward motion, can only cannibalize and repurpose itself in the guise of renewal, a mortal remix that tends to pass off an eviscerated avant garde for material discovery.
A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
So-called progress names a cultural if not an ontological imperative as a species of dire pharmakon: remedy as ruin, betterment as destruction. In the opening paragraphs of one of his last texts, Worstward Ho, Samuel Beckett articulates this imperative as driving whatever remains of self-expression in our time, the need to “go on,” and to go on saying, despite exhaustion, despite the obvious futility and emptiness of the new, despite the asymptotic approach of his language to its absolute expressive limits, its nohow: “On. Say on. Be said on. Somehow on. Till nohow on. Said nohow on.” The work’s title parodies Charles Kingsley’s 1855 novelWestward Ho!, an extended romance of colonial expansion, masculine industry and liberal self-reliance. More recently, Beckett’s lines have often been misappropriated and repurposed as a kind of global capitalist mantra, a call to technological and corporate innovation. As readers, and fellow latecomers, we need to be more rigorous and careful about what Beckett articulates here.
Beckett’s language sloughs off the trappings of Western progress for an acknowledgement of cultural and epistemic decrepitude: “All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Speech deteriorates into fragmented clichés and bathetic puns; pushed to its verbal limits, the romance of expressive imperatives can only cannibalize itself. What passes for innovation or renewal reduces to tautology: “Imagination dead imagine.” For me, this fraught word-circuit allegorizes the broken teleology of the human project, its attenuated failure, a diagnosis that seems increasingly self-evident in our era of climate change, endocapitalism, exhaustive consumption, viral technocracy, global insecurity, displaced populations and supersaturated media. The imperative to innovate, however, persists as a resilient remainder, or “stirrings still” as Beckett’s last text puts it. Acknowledging the vestiges of this imaginative prod that might stir us on is one of the cultural functions of lyric, still, today. Confronted with its own extinction, Beckett’s language nonetheless enacts a thetic rhythm, a halting but persistent step beyond itself.
The American poet C. D. Wright, who died earlier this week, suggests in One with Others (2010) a comparable cultural function for poetry in our fraught, self-destructive era of “progress”: “It is a function of poetry to locate those zones inside us that would be free, and declare them so.” Wright’s declaration may sound as if she wants to recuperate naïve confession, potentially masking wreckage in aspirational nostalgia. That’s certainly a danger in advocating for poetry in an age when lyric language becomes increasingly corny, recycled and fatigued. Better understood, Wright advocates for a fracturing of interiority, a form of innovation, a freeing that doesn’t so much foster the cult of expressive genius as open intimacy onto an alterity, an outside, that refuses merely to cannibalize its own ruins.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. Tanya Tagaq’s 2014 album Animism culls a lyric intensity, an embodied affective immediacy, by splicing and looping an extemporaneous, situated circular breathing derived from Inuit throat-singing back onto itself, supported by her core improvising trio with Jesse Zubot and Jean Martin, and others. Confronting the porous boundaries between the human and the animal, the corporeal and the machinic, the given and the made, the recording troubles the edges of signification, and generates its eros by turning those zones of encounter inside out. Each nascent “song” offers a kind of post-natural ecology. It innovates not by being new but by freeing up, by crossing lines, and by making vocal music from the come-and-go of those transgressive stirrings. Her/their music surges up, finds its pulse, in sustained and audible risk. There is much to say, and to say on, about this recording, but I’ll finish my own set of re-purposed texts by briefly noting how Tagaq and group re-purpose and renew—innovate through—The Pixies’s “Caribou.” A parody, perhaps, of ethnomusicological collecting, the CD opens by concocting a form of techno-shamanism with a cover not of Inuit folksong but of American post-punk, inverting salvage anthropology into a call for, if not a performance of, primordial agency—deft ululation, yes, but also voicing an acute cultural politics through expansive virtuosity, decolonizing the ear: “Give dirt to me / I bite lament / This human form / Where I was born / I now repent.” In an interview in NME Black Francis apparently disclosed that “maybe even the singer of the song is reincarnated as a caribou.” In Tanya Tagaq’s version, animistic metempsychosis emerges from speech act—thematized as repentance in the lyrics—toward verbal becoming, the self—its human form—transubstantiated through unfolding textures of voice: anthropomorphic debris reanimated, said on, sung on.
Recent news items about Justin Bieber’s arrest in Miami (where he was charged in January with DUI and with drag racing) and about his subsequent mugshot, as well as earlier reports – to which I had access, like millions of others, via Twitter – of him vomiting milk during a performance and of him collapsing on stage at a concert in London, seem to offer opportunities to interrogate the collision of the body and image, of self and celebrity, and of lyric and media. And to get a little wordy. I have ended up producing two texts, which I’m calling “Alias Fonds.” The headline for the report on Justin Bieber collapsing in London, when it appeared on a Twitter feed, read like a phase-shifted snippet from a Frank O’Hara poem, which set the composition of the first part in motion. I also overheard a conversation in a coffee shop at the time between two people I took for graduate students in actuarial science. The second part draws on the lyrics of a typical Justin Bieber song, mashed up with Dylan Thomas, W. H. Auden, some high school chemistry, and media reports on the arrest. There’s a lot of bent replication. The texts of the poems can be read here.
Justin Bieber started out with homemade videos on YouTube. I’m no Bieber, of course, but the homemade audio is meant to gesture at these origins. There is only natural reverb, for instance, on the voice: no effects. I play the instruments – a baritone ukulele and a student-model Yamaha trumpet – and I programmed and sequenced the drum machine (a DM-1 cloned on an iPad) partly to reflect the 5-on-4 metre of the first section. (The second section shifts the rhythm a little, but it’s still there, ghostly-like.) I intend the trumpet loops to be an homage to Bill Dixon. The two poems were written in the space of about eight months. The recordings happened from October 2013 to March 2014. So there you go.
Last night, I saw and heard John K.Samson (of The Weakerthans) perform for the second time this year, at the studio theatre of the Chan Centre at the University of British Columbia, where he has been appointed writer-in-residence in the Creative Writing program for this school year, 2012-2013. The first had been on May 12 at the Biltmore, on tour with a band (including Shotgun Jimmie) supporting the release of his solo record Provincial. Both performances were remarkable, not least for his ability to connect directly and feelingly with his listeners. The May show was high-energy and electric, and turned me into a fan, if I wasn’t one already. The previous fall, I had started supervising an undergraduate thesis by Bronwyn Malloy on Samson’s lyrics, and the enthusiastic conversations I had been having with her had really affected my growing belief that Samson was an undeniably powerful poet with a startlingly original sense of line and voice; Bronwyn’s essay turned out to be one of the best pieces of creative criticism I have read in my twenty-odd years as an academic, and I’m happy to admit that many of the better insights into Samson’s work that I want briefly to outline here must derive from my interactions with her writing and her thinking.
To start with, “powerful” is probably the wrong word to apply – at least, without some qualification – to Samson’s art, despite how unreservedly laudatory I’m trying to be here. The actual power of his songs and lyrics derives, I think, from their ability to tap into a pathos of powerlessness, of the social and linguistic disenfranchisement that the characters both represented in and speaking through his texts all seem to share. He voices the weaker than. At the Biltmore, he closed out the set by unplugging himself from the PA – my ears, I have to tell you, were ringing that night; some of those songs, casting back to Samson’s early days as a Winnipeg punk, still asked to be thrashed – closed out the set by unplugging himself and his guitar, climbing up onto one of the monitors, and doing a stripped-down acoustic version of “Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure.” That song is the sequel to the “Plea from a Cat Named Virtute,” a song about his cat composed in response to a request, as Samson explains it, from Veda Hille. The subject-matter might at first glance seem incidental and patently lame. (A catsong? Really? Two cat songs?) But this veneer of weakness is belied not only by the cat’s Latinate moniker – derived from the motto on Winnipeg’s civic coat-of-arms– meaning “strength,” but also by both songs’ reach into a common human experience, the tenuous uncertainties around returns on our investments of affection: both lyrics ventriloquize an anthropocentric projection of meaning onto a mute and vanished animal – the cat pleads and explains. But those explanations are hardly conclusive or satisfying, and the latter song ends with the cat’s detachment from language, from meaning, and from human connection, as it struggles to recall what its unusual name might even have been: “But now I can’t remember the sound that you found for me” (Lyrics and Poems 80). The attachment to a name, to a verbal guarantor of a distinctive personhood, reduces to semiotic dehiscence, to sound and sense coming apart. But, what was amazing at the Biltmore show was that, as Samson reached the song’s close, his audience – many of whom had his words by heart and were singing along anyway – turned this line into a choral refrain; unplugged, he became for a time a kind of latter-day balladeer, singing with not just to the sum total of his listeners. Undifferentiated by the electric trappings and apparatuses of performance or broadcast, Samson became a part of his public. (Became his admirers? At last night’s event, he talked about the influence of W. H. Auden early in his life. Maybe so.) And there was nothing saccharine or maudlin, and more importantly nothing cynical, about singing for a lost cat; instead, what he managed was genuinely affective: feeling, shared. He closed out last night’s performance with the same tactic, a version of this same song delivered standing on a chair, unplugged from any amplifiers. Reaching quietly out.
Still, Samson’s songs often doubt, or at least call into question, their capacity to cross through this daunting alterity, this public divide we all seem to share. In “Pampheleteer,” he repurposes a line from Ralph Chaplin’s famous 1915 union anthem, “Solidarity Forever,” turning political call into a lament for lost love:
Sing, “Oh what force on earth could be weaker than the feeble strength of one” like me remembering the way it could have been. (37)
As tempting as it might be smart to re-appropriateHerbert Marcuse’s collision of revolution and Eros to explain the doubled trope here, I think it’s better to see the feeling represented in these lines as an unsteady amalgam of alienation and community. The inherent weakness of failed or failing desire becomes what binds us, erotically and socially becomes a name for the absence we all appear, in a kind of contingent solidarity, to feel. In this song and in “Virtute,” that strength in weakness depends on the shortfall not only of memory – of knowing for certain what might have been – but also of re-membering, of picking up the disparate pieces of a civic body in disarray: cats, friends, acquaintances, lovers . . . all the inhabitants of a particular home or place or city, whether hated or great.
Last night’s concert included two on-stage interviews with John K. Samson by novelist Keith Maillard, the current chair of UBC’s Creative Writing program. When Maillard asked about how he composes his songs, Samson remarked on his slowness, on the agon-like struggle he goes through writing and finishing songs. He said something close to: “The process of trying to remember how to write a song is how the song gets written.” Again, it’s the sometimes effortful reconstituting of failing memory that’s key in his conception. Samson’s songs both thematize and enact the approach of expression, of saying something, to the constantly retreating and collapsing edges of language, the unsayable. Part of his humility, I think, is a recognition of a pathos of the failure of meaning at the core of the lyrical. As one of his characters, a broken-hearted dot-com entrepreneur, puts it in a one-sided overheard plea to an former lover, “So what I’m trying to say, I mean what I’m asking is, I know we haven’t talked in a while, but could you come and get me?” (77). A lyricism of the colloquial emerges in these lines through missed connections, through tentatively expressing the desire to be heard and to make contact with someone else. Community, that is, starts to consist in desire rather than realization, in the mutual recognition of our absences, as both speaker – or singer – and listener. We start to empathize across, and because of, our mutual distances. When in another lyric Samson obliquely defines his poetics, his practice of making, in terms of utility and labour (“Make this something somebody can use” ), the insurmountable ambiguities of everyday language convert into common weakness, into lyric public address. (I have left out specifically discussing the deftly crafted, mercurial imagery and evocatively kiltered phrasings that are hallmarks of his style. Most of what I’ve cited above are examples of moments of colloquial diffusion rather than of poeticism. But he’s great, trust me. Take a close look at any of his lyrics. You’ll see what I mean.)
Samson, John K. Lyrics and Poems 1997-2012. Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2012.